"The need for the legislation at this time is both the pending expiration of the current authorization and the upcoming change in Administration. Without a clear statement of congressional priorities and policies for NASA, the nation runs the risk of wasting both time and resources as we transition from one Administration to the next." - Report of the House Science and Technology Committee accompanying its FY 2009 NASA reauthorization bill
A strongly bipartisan bill to reauthorize NASA and its programs for FY 2009 is now being considered by the full House. While H.R. 6063, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2008, is expected to pass the House, the Office of Management and Budget has issued a statement declaring "the Administration strongly opposes" the bill.
The House Committee on Science and Technology and its Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics have held 16 hearings examing NASA's programs. A common theme running through these hearings that is also heard at appropriations hearings is the lack of sufficient money for NASA to accomplish everything that is asked of it. As an example, the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee cited an estimate by the National Academies that during the next twelve years, $7 billion will be needed by NASA for recommended Earth Science missions. The Administration's five-year plan call for spending less than $1 billion. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has not sugar-coated the agency's financial situation, testifying that he has had to make difficult choices in deciding what programs should receive funding. Making Griffin's balancing act even more difficult is the recognition that flying the space shuttle is risky and expensive, resulting in the planned retirement of the shuttle in 2010, five years before a U.S. space craft is scheduled to replace it.
The space science community has been impacted by the agency's financial constraints, with missions delayed, cancelled, or left on the ground. NASA's science programs receive approximately one-quarter of the agency's annual budget, or $4.4 billion in the FY 2009 request. This request is almost $265 million less than the Science Mission Directorate received in its FY 2008 appropriation. Funding cuts in the agency's aeronautics program have also been widely criticized.
The committee's $19.2 billion bill authorizes spending that is $2.6 billion above the Administration's FY 2009 request. Of this amount, $1 billion is authorized for reducing the five-year gap between the shuttle's retirement and its replacement system. H.R. 6063 contains provisions significantly strengthening NASA's Earth Science, space science, and aeronautics programs. The legislation calls for a U.S.-led long term international exploration initiative, and requires the NASA Administrator to ensure that the space station remains a viable and productive facility through at least 2020. There is prescriptive language regarding three additional space shuttle flights to the space station that are to occur by the 2010 scheduled retirement date, including a flight to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Other provisions set policies regarding the tracking of near Earth objects, commercial sector services, space weather, export control policies, astronaut health care, decadal surveys, innovative prizes, education, and the agency's institutional capabilities. The committee's report, 110-702, provides the full text of the bill, the committee's explanation of its provisions, and a summary of the hearings.
Despite the strong support for the bill by both the committee's Democrats and Republicans (with the only disagreement in the final mark up by the committee over alternative fuels), the Office of Management and Budget issued a two-page Statement of Administration Policy outlining its objections to the bill. OMB's primary objection is the mandating of specific shuttle flights that will "certainly result in several serious impacts and risks to NASA's exploration programs and other activities." The June 10 statement, which can be read in full here, states, "The Space Shuttle must be retired by the end of 2010, and the NASA Administrator’s authority to make the final determination on Shuttle flights based on safety considerations must be preserved. In addition, any increased cost of an additional Shuttle flight must be satisfactorily accommodated within the President’s proposed discretionary spending total."
H.R. 6063 will provide policy guidance to NASA, and will send an important message to the next Administration and to the next Congress. Actual funding for the agency will be provided by the appropriations committees, one of which, in the House, will be marking up its bill today. That bill, the FY 2009 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill, is not expected to be passed by the start of the fiscal year, and will all likelihood be enacted by the next Congress and the next president.